Right out of the gate, the "debate" was a disaster. I was appalled by Trump's interruptions, wild claims, and childish bullying. I was frustrated by Biden's failure to denounce Antifa, his flip-flop on the Green New Deal, his perpetuation of the myth of systemic racism, his avoidance of the question of the obvious corruption of his unskilled son getting $50,000 a month from a Ukraine gas company, and on and on. At first, I was just shaking my head at this apparent anomaly of such bizarre, disrespectful, and undisciplined behavior on the national stage.
But then, in a moment of eerie and haunting realization, I wasn't just seeing Trump v. Biden, I was seeing our national conversation, distilled into three people talking past each other, noisily, unproductively, and very much like a train out of control veering off a cliff. This debate wasn't an aberration, it was a reflection.
Incivility, misinformation, and gridlock. Just like what we see in the news, on social media, and, increasingly, in our streets.
The most important line of the night wasn't spoken by the moderator or either candidate. It was NBC co-anchor Savannah Guthrie who nonchalantly said before the debate began, "... and the stakes, well, they're high: the presidency and the future direction of our country on the line..."
A presidential election should never be about "the future direction of our country." And yet it is. We have made the president an emperor, responsible for solving our collective problems and willingly handing him the power to do so.
And then the first question by moderator, Chris Wallace, "Where do you think a Justice Barrett would take the court?"
A Supreme Court justice shouldn't be able to "take the court" or, by inference, the country anywhere. She should simply judge existing law, not make it. And yet they do. We have abdicated our collective responsibility to vigorously debate critical issues among ourselves and use the amendment process when we want to make constitution-level law - abdicated it to five of nine.
Within the first few minutes of the evening, a root cause of what ails us as a country revealed itself. Over the last 100 years, we have dismissed the notions of limited government (a president should preside over very little) and separation of powers (judges shouldn't make law) as quaint and primitive relics of a bygone era and erected instead an enormous byzantine federal government where power is centralized to solve all of society's problems (i.e. the rest of the debate's topics: race, healthcare, the economy, etc.).
That's the problem. Or at least it's a problem. One of the big ones.
In a recent essay, I compared our ship of state to a ship of war, where bulwarks and watertight doors protect the ship from flooding if one compartment is breached by corruption or incompetence.
By centralizing power we have opened many of the doors meant to isolate danger. Our ship of state is on fire and taking on water.
We need to reduce the scope, the stakes, the clamor for power, and the inevitable corruption and confusion by closing the watertight doors and restoring the integrity of each of the compartments - the judiciary, the presidency, the legislature, the states, etc.
In another recent essay, I made the case that Justice Barrett would be an excellent addition to the Supreme Court because of her belief in this limited-government, isolate-the-powers approach.
As a constitutional originalist, she recognizes her role is to judge the law, not make it. Judicial activism has opened the watertight door separating the judiciary from the legislature.
As much as we like to see society's problems "solved" more quickly than they would through the amendment process, this breach in our hull is the source of the bitter contention we see in our court nomination and confirmation process - and the imposition of one slice of America's will upon the other through undemocratic means.
The (Un)informed Citizen
Another stark realization I had in this debate was that 99% of what I've learned about moral, political, and economic philosophy - everything that informs my political opinions - I learned after college.
I was not prepared for the duties of citizenship by 13 years in public school and four years at a state university. In the ensuing years, I have attended lectures, conferences, read mountains of books, listened to untold hours of podcasts, pursued a graduate degree - all with the purpose of trying to understand why things are the way they are and how they might be better.
And I feel like I have a long way to go and much more to learn.
Citizenship requires a path of lifelong learning. I don't know any way around that.
Most of us spend most of our time dealing with the basics of life - work, family, getting children everywhere they need to go - with our leisure time spent in relaxation, entertainment, and distraction. And those things are useful and necessary in the right amounts. I am struck that the word "school" is derived from Greek and Latin words that meant "leisure". The idea being that those who had discretionary time spent it in learning, not recreation as we now do - and society was divided to a certain degree between those who worked and the privileged few who learned.
And perhaps that's the easiest and most important change of all. Each of us, spending our leisure time, some of it at least, in learning.